Luke 19:1-9: Zacchaeus – The Righteous Sinner

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Luke 19:1-10
19:1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.'” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
What do we learn from this text?
First, some background: Among the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’ time, tax collectors, many of whom were Jews, were greatly feared and despised by their fellow Jews. Jewish tax collectors were seen as traitors for working for the Roman Empire. Apart from this, however, they were feared because they would often demand extra for themselves. Because the lucrative production and export of balsam was centered in Jericho, Zacchaeus would have been a well-known, important, and wealthy man.
Described as a short man, Zacchaeus found it necessary to climb a sycamore fig tree so that he might be able to see Jesus. When Jesus came near where Zacchaeus was perched, he looked up into the branches, addressed Zacchaeus by name, and told him to come down for He intended to visit his house. The crowd was shocked that Jesus would sully himself by being a guest of a tax collector.


A close reading of the text suggests the crowd had made unwarranted assumptions about the character of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, it seems, was a sinner who went to extra-ordinary lengths to keep faith with the Torah. In other words, he was a man who accepted his identity and burden as a tax collector and, as such, yet struggled to live righteously. Let’s look more closely at the text of this story. To this end, here’s a literal translation of the Greek (Young’s):

And Zacchaeus having stood, said unto the Lord, ‘Lo, the half of my goods, sir, I give to the poor, and if I do take by mistake[1], I give back fourfold.’

In this text, Luke seems to portraying Zacchaeus as a sinner who struggles to do right by the Torah. Like most of us who struggle daily to live according to God’s will, we make mistakes and fail.


Note that Zacchaeus speaks in the present, not the future, tense[2]. In other words, the text supports the conclusion that giving to the poor is Zacchaeus’s current practice, not something he promises to do in the future. In this, a plain reading of the text, Zacchaeus is a tax collector who, contrary to type, donates generously to the poor. Next he says,

“and if I do take by mistake, I give back fourfold.”  

This clause, in keeping with the previous ones, is also in the present tense — Zacchaeus is citing his existing practice — specifically that when he discovers that he’s wrongly collected too much tax, he tries to correct and atone for the fault (he repays the the overage thereby correcting the taking but also atones by giving of his own wealth). We see in this narrative that Zacchaeus does more than what the Torah requires (c.f., Exodus 22:1-14 — laws of repayment)

There is no suggestion in this text consistent with the conventional interpretation that, overcome with Jesus’ willingness to stay with him, Zacchaeus comes to faith and repents of his past deeds and promises to behave from now on. Quite the contrary. A straightforward reading of the text suggests that Jesus’ purpose was to lift Zacchaeus up as an example of a righteous Jew. That Zacchaeus was a sinner (and a man reviled for his occupation) but who struggled to be faithful to the Torah completely exemplified righteousness. To Jesus, it wasn’t the sin that counted, it was Zacchaeus’ repentence, i.e., recognition, correction, and atonement.

And so Jesus scolds the crowd pointing out that Zacchaeus is truly a member of the covenant (“son of Abraham”), i.e., a Jew. Moreover, as a consequence of his willingness (and ongoing effort) to repent, Jesus teaches the crowd that salvation is available, even for the most despised of men provided such a man strives to live by God’s will and when failing repents

Now, go and study.

  1. [1]Literally by “false accusation”
  2. [2]δίδωμι (I give): indicative, present, active first person singular
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